A winter adventure

John Young and his Robinson R-44Membership in a vibrant flying club opens the door to a variety of new flight experiences through its membership.  This morning I flew with a friend for lunch, and ended up with an introduction to helicopters.

John Young has been a member of the club for as long as I have, and is now a helicopter CFII instructing out of Nashua in Robinson helicopters with a share in a Robinson R-44.  John answered my call for people willing to fly with me on Presidents’ Day, and we decided to fly up to Sanford, Maine, for lunch on what was a cold and windy New England winter morning.  As a pilot, I am enthusiastic boy with plenty of room for improvement, so flying with John is a special treat.

We landed at Sanford for lunch at the airport restaurant — cheese burgers with butter-toasted buns — and John began to explain helicopter flight to me.  Watching out the window, we watched a Twin Bee amphibian pull up to the restaurant.  John noted that it was a multiengine, an amphibian, and a tail dragger, each property requiring a different rating or sign off and each increasing insurance costs dramatically.  Nearing the end of the lunch, John mentioned that his helicopter was up at Laconia, New Hampshire, so we decided to fly over there to see it.

Laconia airplanes in the coldFlying toward Lake Winnipesaukee, we flew north of the Alton Bay ice airport that club member Egbert Woelk wrote about last month, and we admired the patterns of snowmobile tracks covering the snowy surface of every frozen lake in sight.  Landing at Laconia, we walked past a grass parking area filled with snow-covered planes looking forlorn stuck among frozen drifts of snow.  Entering the hanger, we found John’s R-44 sitting next to a smaller R-22.  (And a yellow Ferrari.)

Sitting inside the cockpit and opening access panels outside and climbing over the platform with his helicopter, listening to John, I began to understand his love of helicopters. My greatest moments in airplanes are those moments when I feel at one with the machine, bonded to it, understanding the plane so well that I know what the machine is going to do before it happens, and then getting to watch it happen.  Bonding with a helicopter seems to be a requirement for flight, and not just an opportunity for a fleeting moment of joy.

Laconia airpot in winterFlying from Laconia back to Lawrence, Massachusetts, our tailwind at 4500 feet added 40 knots to our ground speed, and we absolutely flew home.  Landing at Lawrence, that tailwind became a strong headwind. It made our landing roll so short that we could easily turn off at the cross runway, which was just as well, because the tower had advised us that the usual taxiway was closed by snow drifting over the frozen tundra of the airport property.  In the bitter cold wind, the snow crunched and the ice cracked under our feet as we walked back to the car.

Another great New England flying adventure.

After the storm

Shoveling out

How do you fly after a severe winter storm? You find some friends. John Young, Egbert Woelk, Rich Ells, and Mel Suarez (taking the picture) showed up to shovel out the club plane the day after our New Year storm shut down the Boston area for two days. A lot of the cold, dry snow had been blown away by the wind by the time they showed up. After some shoveling, Rich and his truck showed up to finish the heavy lifting. While waiting for Rich, the crew naturally took a break at Four Star Aviation and got caught up on flying.

Ice Runway Adventure

One of the most unique airports in the country is within thirty minutes of our home airport, Lawrence in Massachusetts. It is Alton Bay on Lake Winnipesaukee. For most of the year Alton Bay (B18) is a seaplane base but in winters when the lake is frozen, Alton Bay turns into a runway for land planes. In years when it is cold enough for long enough Paul LaRochelle, volunteer manager of B18 and his team clear the snow off of the ice and make a runway for regular land airplanes.

Alton Bay, 2005, Egbert WoelkOn the ramp of the ice runway at Alton Bay.

On a crisp blue winter day flying over Lake Winnipesaukee is spectacular, especially in a small airplane at a thousand feet or so. Snow-covered Mt. Washington is near and a great sight. Near Laconia which is a few miles away are many ice fishing shelters and a few pick-up trucks are on the ice. The islands in the lake dot the white sheet of ice.

Alton Bay, 2005, Egbert Woelk
Lake Winnipesaukee and Mount Washington in winter.

Back in December 2005, we picked a nice calm winter day to fly out to the ice runway. After enjoying a round of sightseeing of the lake we headed for Alton Bay. It is a great view to see the runway and the taxiway east of it. The winds were light and from the North. We approached form the north and entered the left downwind. On final there is a great view of the Alton Bay village and the bay. Landing feels normal but the brakes have no effect. Final approach therefore should be flown at the slowest possible approach speed and touchdown within the first 200 feet of the runway.

Alton Bay, 2005, Egbert Woelk
Turning final at Alton Bay.

With tricycle landing gear planes the 180 degree turn from the end of the runway onto the taxiway is definitely tricky especially when the temperature is near the freezing mark and the ice is very, very slippery. Differential braking does not render much of an effect. The rudder pushes the tail in the right direction but at the same time the propeller pulls forward and the wheels put up no resistance. Although we tried our level best, the turn radius of our Cherokee 180 was way to large and we ended up in front of a snow bank. We had to turn off the engine and manually align the plane with the taxiway. This would have been difficult as a single pilot but with two it was no problem.

Alton Bay, 2005, Egbert Woelk
On the “ramp.”

Once parked on the “ramp” there is usually a number of pilots to talk to. On a nice weekend there is also an interested public out and about who like to look and learn about airplanes and flying. Normally there is a little cafe/restaurant just on the beach to warm up over a cup of hot coffee or tea.

Alton Bay, 2005, Egbert WoelkReady for take-off.

Flying into Alton Bay is a great experience and great fun.

Father and son

20131111_153457Sometimes the best thing about a club are the people in the club.

On the spur of the moment this afternoon, I flew to Turners Falls with George and his son Chris.  George flew in the back, his medical had lapsed.  Chris flew in the right seat.  I did the take offs and landings from the left seat, and Chris did the rest.  On his first flight ever, he held altitude to within a couple hundred feet and held heading with landmarks pinned to the windscreen, all with only the most modest coaching from me.  Quite amazing.

George made the occasional comment to his son from the back.  “You are near an airport now, so you want to keep a good look out for other planes.”  Gosh, I thought, that sounds like a good idea.  “You are a little high, watch your altitude.”  Gosh, I thought, I should have noticed that.  “See how much faster we are flying home with the wind at our backs?”  Gosh, I thought, we really are moving faster inbound than outbound.  But this flight wasn’t about me, of course.  What I think I was watching was a father’s joy experiencing his own passion with his son, and a father’s pride watching his confident son grow increasingly comfortable and in control as the miles went by.  I hoped for the same kinds of experiences with my own son in another decade.

We landed at Turners Falls and discovered another father-son experience.  The airport operator was in the FBO working on a preheater of his own invention.  The preheater had a pair of flexible tubes bending up and forward from the burner to warm an airplane’s engine via both air inlets at once.  He struck the spark, and a momentary flame protruded from the nearest tube, a fire-breathing dragon with flames leaping from its nostril.  As we talked about his creation, he started talking about the airport, and his own son running the maintenance shop in an adjacent hanger.

I drove home in the dark and found my own son, nearly ten years younger than Chris, ready and raring to go.  He beamed with pride as he held up for me to see his first pair of ice skates.  I told him over dinner about flying with Chris.  “Awwww, I want to go.”  And you shall, my son, some day, just like Chris.

Way to go, Chris, I’ll fly with you any day.


Aerobatic flight

PuchaczToday I had the chance to watch a glider in aerobatic flight.

We have all been to airshows and watched the best of the best fly planes in ways that should not be possible. Flying straight up into the air, slowing until the plane is just hanging by its teeth from the propeller, falling in a faint to the side with just enough rudder to push the nose over. The whining of engines, the Doppler effect and skillful adjustments to power changing constantly the pitch of the engine. The noise and the smoke and the tumbling and the chaos.

But not in a glider.

A pair of us in our club also belong to the Greater Boston Soaring Club and fly gliders out of Sterling just north of Worcester. Two or three times a year, we take turns running the field coordinating the launch and retrieval of gliders and towplanes and ropes (you can’t fly gliders without a lot of friends on the ground). Today was my day. It was a cold, gusty, New England fall day with broken layers of clouds at 4 and 7 and 10 thousand feet, with breaks in one layer exposing the next, and every now and then the breaks lining up to show a patch of blue at the top.

Waiting for people to show up, I watched a beautifully restored Cessna 120, forest green on white, practice landings in the grass. Soon a Cessna 172 arrived to practice short field landings on the asphalt, those massive flaps and strong headwind and a skillful instructor combining to give a forward speed over the ground so low the plane seemed simply to step out of the air onto the smooth surface and stop. And then gliders started flying, and then a Piper Cub, and then a Citabria, all peacefully sharing space together on the grass. This is the glory of aviation, of pure flight, seen most vividly within the close family of community aviation at a small airport. But the wind was cold and strong and burned the skin on my face. I was longing for the fun to end.

And then two instructors launched to practice aerobatics in the Puchacz, a two-place aerobatic glider called “the Puch” within the club. With everyone watching, they took a tow to 4,000 feet and released. Watchers on the ground took turns narrating. “Okay, clearing turns.” Wait. Wait. Wait. “What are they going to do?” Wait. Wait. “Okay, there it is.” The glider dipped its nose twenty degrees. “Picking up speed.” Wait. “There they go.” The glider lifted its nose, closed its eyes and spread its fifty-foot wings wide, exposed its stomach freely to the heavens, and simply reclined onto its back and completed the loop. So effortless, so graceful, so gentle. So quiet.

After putting everything away, a friend heard the incessant hooting of an owl off in the woods. Puchacz is Polish for “Eagle Owl.” And, of course, that’s a guy who really knows how to fly.

Safety Seminar

Flight instructor Claire Bentley and Boston controller Bob Adelizzi will hold an FAA Safety Seminar on improving communication techniques, understanding TFRs, and the consequences of poor preflight planning at Eagle East Aviation at the Lawrence Airport on November 12 at 7:00pm.

Flying in the wind

wind sockI once went home to Nebraska on vacation and got checked out to fly a Cessna at Silverhawk Aviation at the Lincoln airport.  The instructor asked if I minded flying in the gusty conditions, I said it was fine, and he said, “Good, because if you don’t like flying in wind, you aren’t going to fly in Nebraska.”

We’ve had a summer of calm wind in the Greater Boston area, but Sunday afternoon was one blustery, gusty, old-school, New England fall kind of day.  I had hoped to take my first-grade son up for his first flight that afternoon.  His youth-sized David Clark headsets had arrived in the mail the day before, and he had spent a few minutes that afternoon walking around the living room wearing his new green headsets (he would have preferred purple) speaking into the microphone silly things like “Captain Daddy!  Captain Daddy!  All seat belts are fastened!” and assuring me that he would be able to hear me if I spoke directly into the plugs at the end of the headset cable.

But this was not the day for my son’s first flight. The wind was 40 degrees to the left of Runway 32 at 12 gusting to 22 knots.  A Gulfstream at Bedford had reported a 20 knot wind sheer at 500 feet on landing.  Turbulence and low-level wind sheer alerts were given for several locations in the area.  I sat in the plane at Lawrence for a minute feeling the wind bounce the plane on the ground wondering if I should fly.  I knew that the wind coming over the hill on the left of the final approach to Runway 32 would give me quite a ride over the buildings and wires butting up against the approach end of the runway.  I watched several higher-performance planes land.  And I decided to give it a try.

I took off and flew in the direction of Plum Island to practice commercial maneuvers.  Several very talented instructors have tried to help me get the commercial over the years, but something in me could just never get the big picture needed to fly the visual maneuvers that were described as “easy” by so many people, and I was beginning to feel the itch again to go for the commercial and instructor ratings.  I wondered before takeoff if there would be much training value to flying in such wild conditions, but the wind smoothed out beautifully passing through 2000 feet.  I tried steep turns, and they felt effortless.  I tried chandelles, and they worked!  I was so excited I did them again and again and again.  Months of going out with no intention but to become “one with the plane” and practicing private maneuvers over and over again, of choosing aiming points all over the runway to break myself of habits and get “the picture,” of yearning to become so at one with the machine that I could tell what the plane would do seconds (many seconds) before it happened.  And today it all fell into place.  It was amazing.  Maybe it was luck.

I flew back to Lawrence to practice landing in the wind.  I was instructed by the controller to follow an Arrow back to the airport, a plane flying so high approaching the airport that I would never have found him on my own and wondered if he would even be able to land from such heights.  And then I remembered my primary instructor’s advice to fly a steep approach to Runway 32 on windy days to reduce the time spent in the turbulence coming over the hill to the left on final approach.  I remembered him telling me one day that he had passed the point of teaching me to be safe and was now trying to teach me some technique.  I remembered my days in gliders being instructed to approach at best glide speed plus half the headwind to make good progress into the wind, plus the gust to protect against wind sheer on gusty days.  I remembered my dreams of being “Joe Pilot” and touching down just at the stall with the nose up and the wheels quietly chirping in the gentle sequence  upwind wheel, then downwind wheel, then nose wheel.  After a few perfectly decent landings, I flew the final approach at 70 knots instead of the usual 65, and ended with the left wing firmly down, the rudder full right, the nose high, the stall warning light burning, and the wheels touching down left wheel, right wheel, nose wheel.  I’m not saying I didn’t scare anyone in the control tower, but the controller’s voice never wavered from his usual calm and pleasant banter wafting over the air.

Amazing.  So much learned today.  This is why flying is not about getting somewhere, not about shooting approaches, not about mastering complicated machines, not about technology, not even about showing off to my son.  This is Zen and the Art of Flying.  This is the drug that has me hooked.  This is what flying is all about: Flying is all about flying.

Jeff Skiles coming to Lawrence Airport

The EAA Grassroots Pilot Tour is bringing Jeff Skiles of “Miracle on the Hudson” fame to speak at the Executive Flyers Aviation hanger at the Lawrence Airport on Wednesday, October 9.

Flight to Keene

I flew to Keene, New Hampshire, early this morning.

On the way, I practiced turns and steep turns to the left and right, take-off stalls and landing stalls, slow flight straight-ahead and turning, and a new turning exercise from Wally Moran. I love the sense of gentle calmness, finesse, and emotional bonding with the plane that these quiet exercises instill in me. The turning exercise was particularly fascinating: I made it into miles of continuous slow turns to twenty degrees left and right of course to practice the continuous application of rudder and pitch as the ailerons moved, trying to keep the left and right turning point pinned to the wind shield as the fuselage rotated. And Keene has such a long runway that you can choose a dramatically different aiming point for each landing to break yourself of the old “aim for the numbers” routine.

But the approach to Keene was visually spectacular. Passing Mount Monadnock, the sky was blue with that vivid morning clarity that is so New England, and the valleys among the numerous ridges rising up into the sky were still filled with the firm morning fog of a cold valley in a soon-to-be autumn morning. I love flying by Mount Monadnock. It is a common jumping off point for the greatest cross-country pilots in my glider club at Sterling. But I am a Nebraska boy, and the greatest Nebraska author was Willa Cather who did all of her writing about Nebraska in New Hampshire. I’m told she loved Mount Monadnock, home to the artistic colony she attached herself to, so much that a friend of hers buried her with her feet pointing to Monadnock and then went out to cut down trees so that she would have a good view of Monadnock from her resting place.

Coming back from Keene I was surprised to notice an unknown airport below me. I spent a long time trying to force my mind to make the northwesterly turf runway into the northerly asphalt runway at Brookline, New Hampshire, which makes absolutely no sense. I now realize it was the private Mason Airfield southwest of Brookline. The joy of this discovery shot through the top of my head when I realized that there was a DC-3 sitting to the side of the southeast end of the runway! You can even see it on Google Maps.

Back at home, the controller prepared me to extend my downwind for two departures, but instead I throttled back to fly the entire downwind at 80, the controller got out three departures, and advised me “base leg your discretion” in time for a normal pattern to landing.

Some days are just absolutely perfect. And today perfection came before 11am.


I got enough encouragement and advice to give Katama a try this afternoon, and it was great. It was my first time at a real grass strip, I got a good crosswind landing coming home, and I got a tick bite for the first time in years!

By the time I got off the ground, the thermals were cooking, and it had become a day for a glider and not an airplane (I found a motor glider flying above me just east of the Martha’s Vineyard airport). The turbulence smoothed out over the water, and Cape Approach handed me off to Vineyard tower, who advised me to fly along the east side of the island, and there it was like a green postage stamp on the ground. Take a look at this great picture of the airport from Google Maps and zoom in enough to see all three oddly-intersecting runways. I flew overhead to determine the wind was right on 6 (windsock at the intersection of 3 and 6), and went out to start my 45 degree approach to the left downwind leg to 6. And watched as one Waco took off on 17, a Seneca took off on 3, and something else took off on 35. A bit of a free-for-all in ten knot winds.

I parked near the FBO (Eric had told me it was $15 to park at the FBO and $25 to park at the beach, and I felt cheap, and the FBO told me no charge), and started walking to the beach. After getting lost on airport property, I decided to use the roads to get to the beach. But the roads form an A around the airport, and the left and right legs of the A are absurdly long, and the left leg actually doesn’t go to the beach, but bends left again to parallel the beach for a half mile (with signs posted every few feet saying, “Don’t you dare cross my private property to the beach or I’m going to do something interesting to you”). So, baby, spring for the $25 and don’t spend half your visit walking to the beach.

The beach was great. The ocean was Atlantic Ocean, not the protected water I was so excited about a couple weeks ago at the Race Point beach near Provincetown, it was a completely different kind of surf.

This was my first time at a real grass strip. After years and years of practicing soft-field take-offs and landings, I had a pleasant surprise: It is so much easier to do it for real on a grass strip than goofing around pretending your wheels might get stuck in the concrete.

Coming home, the wind was 8 knots down 14, and the tower offered me 5; so I got a chance to land with an 8-knot crosswind component, the strongest direct crosswind I’ve experience since starting up again. And it went fine.

It is so great to be flying again.